Review: City of Men
Capitalizing on the international popularity of his Brazilian TV series City of Men, which aired on BBC4 in Britain and on the Sundance Channel here in the States, Fernando Mereilles (The Constant Gardener) last year produced a feature-film version of the show, directed by Paulo Morelli and starring Darlan Cunha and Douglas Silva. Like the Oscar-nominated City of God, Mereilles’s hyperkinetic, audaciously violent story of gang warfare in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, CITY OF MEN was filmed entirely on location in the hilltop shantytowns where more than one third of the Rio’s poorest residents live. But instead of immersing us solely in the bloody conflicts between rival drug gangs, Morelli and screenwriter Elena Soarez fasten onto a personal story within the same milieu, tracing the vicissitudes of friendship among two youths on the cusp of manhood.
Ace (Silva) and Wallace (Cunha) are lifelong friends who have grown up amid poverty and gang violence on Dead-End Hill without the guidance of a father. So on his 18th birthday, Wallace decides to seek out his deadbeat dad, ostensibly to legitimize his birth certificate, while Ace—now a parent himself, trying with some difficulty to care for an infant son—offers to help. After a long search, Wallace finds his recently paroled birth father, Heraldo (Rodrigo dos Santos), but uncovers a secret that could destroy his relationship with Ace. Meanwhile, hostilities between a pair of crime lords (Jonathan Haagensen and Eduardo BR) threaten to engulf the entire population of Dead-End Hill.
As a gritty melodrama about youth and responsibility, City of Men benefits enormously from the natural talent of Cunha and Silva, who first appeared in City of God and were then cast, at age 11, as lead characters in the spin-off series. Having grown up together on-screen, a convenient intertextual conceit Morelli occasionally recalls through grainy flashbacks, their robust portrayals of Ace and Wallace feel dynamic and true to life. This gives the film a potent intimacy City of God lacked, as it aimed more for visceral, six-barrel immediacy and aestheticized set pieces that were at once shocking, exhilarating, and borderline exploitative. Clearly, Morelli has inherited a template from Mereilles: quick cuts, jittery handheld camerawork, and vibrant, color-saturated imagery, all married to a propulsive visual rhythm that never lingers long on any given scene. And this formula, along with a pulsing Brazilian soundtrack, gives the father-son theme and buddy conflict at the heart of City of Men a jolt of urgency.